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DOCUMENT  0211


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Havana Night Life
by
Jay Mallin, Sr.

[This is an unpublished article which the author sent to Cuban Information Archives.  It was undated but probably was written around 1956-57 before the Riviera and Hilton opened. For more works by Jay Mallin, Sr. go to his home page.]

Jay Mallin
Calle 13 # 416
Vedado, Habana, Cuba

Havana night life

Havana is the tropical city of Rum, Rumba and Roulette, and this winning combination spells Romance to increasing numbers of vacationing Americans.  Last year 285,000 tourists visited the island.  This year the figure is expected to be considerably higher. Undoubtedly one of the major attractions is the city's famed casinos.  Havana is but 90 miles and 50 minutes from the nearest U. S. airport at Key West.  Two hours after leaving Key West, the fun-seeker can be playing roulette, craps, chemin de fer, the bird cage and black jack, in addition to five-cent, ten-cent, twenty-five-cent, and one-dollar slot machines.  The tourist can buy rum at $1.20 a bottle, dance the conga, rumba, mambo and cha cha cha in the land that originated them, and watch nightclub shows with 40 or 50 performers doing musical voodoo numbers. After a few nights of this, the tourist can now happily return home.  If he is destitute, the Anglo-American Welfare Federation will stake him to a loan.

But he will have something to talk about with his cronies for months to come until he can save up enough money and vacation time to return to Havana.  Fun-seeker can tell about the celebrities he rubbed shoulders with.  Recent visitors to the city's nightspots have included Ava Gardner, Groucho Marx, Jennifer Jones, David Selznick, Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes and Senator Joe McCarthy.

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In addition, the nightclubs present top name stars from abroad in their shows.  This year's performers have included Dorothy Lamour, Maurice Chevalier, Billy Daniels, Nat "King" Cole, Eartha Kitt, Edith Piaf, Ilona Massey, Cab Calloway, Dorothy Dandridge, Tony Martin, Ginny Simms, Connee Boswell and Vicente Escudero.

And when he goes to a stag party back home, Mr. Tourist-Who-Has-Visited-Havana will relate details about the unique Shanghai theatre, the only public theatre in the world that presents 1) risque plays with gutter jokes, 2) completely naked women and 3) pornographic movies.  All this you see for a mere $1.25 admission slip the usher a dollar bill for a front-row seat.

The shanghai, the only burlesque house in Havana, presents these shows twice nightly, with a matinee on Sundays.  The show opens with the first act of the play, and thereafter the acts alternate with the musical numbers, in which six or eight women prance around shedding their clothes until none remain.  Finally come the movies, and these are not burlesque movies but straight pornographic films.

The Shanghai has been run for a quarter of a century by Impressario Jose Orozco Garcia, who laments, "Ours is a small country, and there are not many girls who are willing to appear naked."
It has been said that when "Cuba" is mentioned to an American who has visited the island, he visualizes Morro Castle, a bottle of Bacardi and Tropicana nightclub.  Of Tropicana, "Variety" once remarked: "Tropicana need not fear competition from other nightclubs.  It could fire the entertainers, ban the musicians and serve milk instead of Scotch, and people would still flock to see the place."

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The reason for this is simply that Tropicana is the largest and most beautiful nightclub in the world at least, it has long boasted this, and no one has yet come forward to contradict it.  Tropicana is located on what was once a 36,000-square-meter country estate.  The nightclub proper today occupies 8,000 square meters, so this leaves 28,000 square meters of well-kept gardens for necking or an adequate 28 square meters for each of the nightclubs 1,000 nightly customers.

So as not to waste anyone's time, the gambling room at Tropicana is located right off the entrance lobby.  The chandeliered room has ten tables for the usual fun and games, plus 30 slot machines lining the walls.

Beyond the gambling room are the nightclub's two dining, dancing and show areas.  The two areas are distinct: one is outdoors, with tall royal palms rising among and over the tables; the other is indoors and called the Crystal Arch.  The Arch is indeed a huge, modernistic arch-like structure, and this area is used in inclement weather (and also when the outdoor area gets so crowded that there is no more room for customers).  Tropicana's total seating capacity: 1,750, but of course you can stand at the bar or at the crap table, and the management won't object at all.

Because of Tropicana's bucolic surroundings, the producer of the shows, Rodrigo Neira (better known simply as Rodney), can really spread himself.  A Tropicana production number is not complete unless it includes at least half the chorus line dancing on catwalks among the trees.  The schoolteacher from Paducah is suitable impressed when he sees scantily clad lassies scampering in front of him, to his right, to his left and above him.  This is as hard on the neck muscles as watching a tennis match.

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Sugar is Cuba's major industry (it provides the energy in rum and rumba dancers).  Tourists may think rum is the second industry, but they are wrong: they are the country's second industry, spending about $60,000,000 annually.  To increase this sum materially, the Cuban government in 1955 enacted a law permitting the extension of gambling facilities to places that previously were not allowed to have them.  All hotels worth over $1,000,000 were now permitted to install casinos if they wanted them and were willing to pay certain fees to the government, plus a percentage of the take.

Wilbur Clark, who runs Las Vegas' Desert Inn, promptly secured the concession to open a casino in the Hotel Nacional, the country's largest hotel.  The casino opened in January of 1956.  It consists of the Casino Parisien (dining and dancing), the International Casino (gambling) and the Starlight Terrace (bar).  The bar is tended by local bar-tenders, the casino is managed by gentlemen from Las Vegas, and the dining room is in the hands of a fellow named George Tchitchinadze, fortunately known simply as Gogi, formerly of Gogi's LaRue of New York.  (Gogi, as anyone with that name would be, is bald.)

Now abuilding is the Habana Hilton Hotel.  This is also to have a casino.  There are two other top-notch niteries in Havana.  One is Montmartre.  Located entirely indoors, it has the usual entertainments: food, liquor, roulette and dancing girls.  The other place is Sans Souci, and the aptness of its name depends on how much Scotch you consume and how well you do at the crap table.  Located far out of town, Sans Souci has a bucolic aura not unlike Tropicana's but on a considerably less spectacular scale.  Sans Souci recently installed an innovation not usually found at nightclubs: bingo.  Even the children can play.

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Inevitably, after he has seen all the big nightclubs, the tourist wants to see other nightspots that are "different" and where other tourist don't go.  Havana has an ample number of these places, and here Mr. -Tourist-Who-Wants-To-Be-Different can mingle with other tourists who want to be different.

Some of the places:

The row of spots in the area known as La Playita, including the Pennsylvania and Panchin Club.  Here the dancing is undistilled, although the liquor sometimes is.  As the rhythms get hot and heavy, the customers on the dance floor become less unhibited than those in the show.
The outdoor cafes along Prado Boulevard which are one of the reasons Havana is known as the "Paris of the Americas."  El Dorado has an all-girl orchestra, and you can listen to the music, sip your drink and watch the crowds go by.

Scattered around town are several places with more or less authentic Spanish atmosphere (i.e., music and wine jugs).  At the Taberna San Roman someone usually plays a bagpipe, which, no matter what they tell you in Edinburgh, is originally Spanish.

The bars and cocktail lounges, of which there are over 100, not counting the 3,000 corner stores ("bodegas") which sell liquor by the glass or bottle.  The better bars provide live entertainment: singers, pianists or accordion players.

Lesser nightclubs, like the Bambu and La Campana, have slot machines but no other gambling facilities.  The cha cha chas are genuine, and so are the mosquitoes at some of the places outside town.

Havana thus provides entertainments to suit all tastes.  There is something for everyone in the nightlife of "the Pearl of the Antilles," "the Paris of the Americas," "the sexiest city in the world."  Dance, drink and dine, visit the dives and the palaces, rick your shekels on the "shimmies" (gamblese for chemin de fer) and worry not amidst the tropical grandeur and gaiety, for tomorrow is manana, and everyone knows that manana is never today.


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